Pushing Opera’s Limits, Prototype Fest Shifts Its Daring To Larger Canvas


Heather Christian’s ‘Terce: A Practical Breviary‘ was a hit at Prototype. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

NEW YORK — Roman Grygoriv and Ilia Razumeiko place their post-apocalyptic “archeological” opera Chornobyldorf: Archeological Opera in Seven Novels within Umberto Eco’s concept of “open work.” Eco argued that a work of art should be viewed as a site for interactivity, collaboration, and intermediality; among these are included the interconnectedness of modern media and communication. Those words pretty much sum up this year’s entire Prototype Festival experience, not just one work of the nine in the annual event, which this year ran Jan. 11-21 in performing spaces throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.

With this edition, Prototype is pivoting away from the smaller works that were the festival’s raison d’être by expanding the size and scope of its productions. As Beth Morrison and Kristin Marting, the festival’s guiding lights, explain, “In the beginning the majority of the projects were for small, black-box spaces as we were striving to create a black-box opera movement. We achieved that, and have thrilled audiences with up-close operatic experiences. We are keeping black-box-scale work, but are now also doing work on a larger scale.”

From the start, Prototype sought out creative artists doing nontraditional work worthy of commissions. It has stayed true to that mission. The 2024 festival saw the world premieres of three live works — Heather Christian’s Terce: A Practical Breviary, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Royce Vavrek’s Adoration, and Laura Ortman and Autumn Chacon’s Malinxe. It would be hard to imagine three more different theater pieces. What they have in common is their creators’ quest to tell stories that resonate deeply within contemporary society, even if they sometimes go beyond the comfort level of many a theatergoer.

To the extent that this year’s festival had a break-away hit, it was Terce, with its run being extended into February. In this engaging musical-theater experience, Obie Award-winning composer and singer-songwriter Christian turned to the religious realm with a reimagining of a service, known as Terce, traditionally sung by monks at the third hour of the day around nine in the morning. Christian’s previous efforts in this vein include the audio-theater work Prime, produced by Playwrights Horizon, based on the first monastic service of the day, and the choral piece Oratorio for Living Things, which played Off-Broadway in an Arts Nova production in 2022.

Mary Kouyoumdjian and Royce Vavrek’s ‘Adoration‘ was one of the featured works at Prototype. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

Christian recast the traditional service of psalms and prayers with texts inspired by the writings of three female mystics: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, and Robin Wall Kimmerer. The fascinating musical fabric she weaves in Terce is a blend of new music, neo-soul, and gospel, coupled with a modern take on organum, polyphonic versions of chant popular in the Middle Ages.

Backed up by instrumentalists and a community choir of over 30 women, Christian led a joyous celebration in the spirit of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell. This was one of two live Prototype performances that left one feeling upbeat and smiling, as well as marveling at the ingenuity of a composer who incorporated the sounds of spoons, keys, rolling pins, and vacuum cleaners into a score. Christian is an artist who can make the mundane magnificent.

Kouyoumdjian really gets what opera is about — the union of words and music to generate real emotion, not just tell a story. Undoubtedly, her task was made easier by Vavrek’s compelling libretto for Adoration, but Kouyoumdjian has the rare ability to compose vocal lines that are not only easy on the ear but also capture the deepest and most subtle of emotions.

Adoration is an adaptation of Atom Egoyan’s film of the same name. The action seemingly centers upon the teenage Simon, whose parents were killed in car accident. It is, however, a story of unrequited love in which the actual circumstances surrounding their deaths are revealed by a woman (portrayed by soprano Miriam Khalil, in a committed, unflinching performance), whose life is intertwined with that of Simon and his mother’s family. It’s the stuff of which opera is made, and Adoration is the real thing.

Laura Ortman and Autumn Chacon’s ‘Malinxe‘ was intended to be performed outdoors, but frigid weather in New York necessitated that it be moved inside.

Malinxe was intended to be performed outdoors, but frigid weather in New York necessitated that it be moved inside. Conceived by North American indigenous composers Chacon and Ortman, Malinxe is a contemporary retelling of the myth of La Llorona, or “the weeping woman.” With roots dating to the 16th century, it is the tale of a spirit who roams near water, mourning the child whom she drowned and warning others of the element’s power. In this telling, Malinxe is a woman outside of time struggling to escape from Llorona’s dangerous watery realm.

With the massive staircase leading into the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place draped in white material, Marisa Demarco as Malinxe, Jeffrey Gibson as La Llorona, and Ortman playing the violin created an all-encompassing soundscape on a scale equal to the setting. The violin rode on the wave of electronically generated music, which was enhanced by bird calls, screeches, the buzz of insects, and other sounds of nature.

It was a suitable location, as the Winter Garden is situated on the Manhattan-side of the Hudson River near the World Trade Center. The move indoors to such a popular spot undoubtedly upped attendance 100-fold for the single performance of Malinxe, to say nothing of it possibly becoming a TikTok sensation, judging from the number of photos and videos being taken. In other words, Eco’s opera aperta in action.

Prototype has also been an important incubator for works in native digital format. These brief musical postcards combine a variety of disciplines to create an integrated work of art and are the logical extension of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk ideals, albeit at the micro level. In these digital creations, video techniques have been liberated from simply capturing the performance to being an essential element of the creator’s artistic concept.

Two of the three videos, which were available on demand throughout the festival, tackled themes that roil American society. In Swann, composer Tamar-kali and librettist Carl Hancock Rux created an evocative, visually sumptuous digital aria based on the life of William Dorsey Swann, who was born a slave in 1860, later to become the first self-identified “queen of drag” in the U.S.

The never-ending fuss in America surrounding race was explored in Paul Pinto and Kameron Neal’s Whiteness. A chorus of Pinto’s detached bouncing heads are the delight of this video. Neal’s digital magic lifts Pinto’s seemingly wacky but thoughtful musings on skin color to the level of art, with just the right touch of archness.

A scene from Huang Ruo’s ‘Angel Island‘ at Prototype (Photo by Ellen Qbertplaya)

In a completely different vein is Vodalities, Paradigms of Consciousness for the Human Voice, created by composer and performing artist Shodekeh Talifero, who pays tribute to Bobby McFerrin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Doug E. Fresh in an exploration of wordless vocal techniques used by musicians around the word. Talifero’s vocal percussion merged with the sounds produced by Sō Percussion, for whom the piece was written, in a fascinating experience that was as compelling visually as it was aurally.

Morrison and Marting pointed to Huang Ruo’s Angel Island as an example of the large-scale works that are being introduced into the festival’s lineup. Angel Island revisits the plight of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. between 1910 and 1940, when mass discrimination was put into law pursuant to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Through music, dance, narration, and film, Ruo, director Matthew Ozawa, and film designer Bill Morrison created a full-immersion experience through which to probe and illuminate this tragic chapter of American history.

Ruo conducted the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Del Sol String Quartet in a performance as precisely etched visually as it was musically. Dancers Jie-Hung Connie Shiau and Benjamin Freemantle generated aggression, pain, and despair through their haunting movements. The work is part documentary and part oratorio, with readings of historical records, first-person accounts, historical photographs, and grainy movie clips as integral components of the experience.

HERE’s black-box main stage could barely contain The Promise, a modern song cycle by Dutch singer-songwriter Wende and English composer Isobel Waller-Bridge. Together with Nils Davidse, Louise Anna Duggan, and Midori Jaeger, Wende rocked the place. The quartet could be banging out deafening chords with lights flashing one moment, but in a flash Wende would warm your heart with a simple ballad brimming with innocence and sunshine.

Dutch singer-songwriter Wende was a dynamic presence in ‘The Promise,’ her song cycle with English composer Isobel Waller-Bridge. (Photo by Raymond van Olphen)

Wende sang about comprised relationships, motherhood, and identity. Many of the subjects were highly personal, such as her decision not to have a child. The Promise shared a link with Christian’s Terce due to a focus on the feminine, as well being upbeat and positive. Wende went a step further than Christian by having the audience join in a sing-a-long, which was a communal experience as good as they get, before ending with a song inspired by the Beatles’ “Let it Be.”

Chernobyldorf closed the festival with a final performance on Jan. 21. The opera takes its name from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Northern Ukraine, which in 1986 was the site of what is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. Grygoriv and Razumeiko’s concept for the opera is complex — an archeological dig in a post-apocalyptic world. It reached the same decibel levels of The Promise, if without the commensurate rewards.

The visual imagery of the production was impressive and the musical score intriguing, but it was all but incomprehensible. Apart from the titles of the seven novels, the performance was sung in Ukrainian with no translations whatsoever. Most in the audience were adrift throughout the two-hour performance, which was a pity, as clearly the artistic team behind Chernobyldorf has a message to impart, and the production explodes, or maybe implodes, with ideas.

This stage extravaganza features ancient ritualistic celebrations, religious ceremonies, videos of high-tension wires, and a lot of pseudo-Christian symbolism. The Soviet era was evoked through a large head of Lenin and grainy black-and-white footage of Leonid Brezhnev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, conveying greetings to the Soviet people. It culminated in an ear-splitting orgiastic Saturnalia which perhaps was a flashback to a catastrophe that wipes out humanity. At one time or another, practically everyone in the cast and most of the musicians were stark naked.

A large head of Lenin shows up in Roman Grygoriv and Ilia Razumeiko’s post-apocalyptic “archeological” opera ‘Chornobyldorf: Archeological Opera In Seven Novels.’ (Photo by Valeriia Landar)

Grygoriv and Razumeiko’s musical language was just as complex, but far more comprehensible. It, too, was an archeological dig of sorts, mining folk music and bits of Bach, Schubert, and Mahler, as well as Mykola Lysenko, credited with establishing the Ukrainian national music tradition, to conjure the past. It was played on traditional instruments such as the Ukrainian bandura and the hammered dulcimer, as well as a cello. The tower of percussion instruments, with its myriad bells, was mesmerizing. There was also an impressive array of prepared instruments, of which a trombone-like affair with multiple bells was a standout. Electronically generated sounds were also part of the mix.

If the performance was a head-scratcher, there was no doubt that you were experiencing something aiming to be avant-garde and that the performers were absolutely committed to Chernobyldorf. They were also dedicated to a cause, which the curtain calls made crystal clear. Cast members acknowledged the applause waving U.S. and Ukrainian flags, as well as the red-and-black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Nationalism and opera have often gone hand in glove; one need go no farther than Verdi, Wagner, or Prokofiev to find it.

Morrison and Marting proclaim that Prototype “has always pushed the boundaries of what opera can be in form and content, and we continue to do so.” Their goal is to “expose our audiences to sounds and sights that will surprise them.” They ticked the box for that one with Prototype 2024.